When to Use Quotation Marks


Quotation marks come in pairs, in multiple versions (single or double), and in multiple styles (vertical or curved). Most know that quotation marks are for letting everyone know that someone is speaking. We also know that quotes from a book or from a person should be surrounded by quotation marks. But there are some lesser known ways to use quotation marks that will help you to be more expressive in your writing.

In this post, we will look at when to use and not use quotation marks. Next week we will look at how to punctuate with quotation marks (not as straightforward as it sounds).


I. With direct quotations

Direct quotes come in two varieties: speech or citation.


This use is common in fiction or nonfiction when indicating what characters say aloud (although quotes can also be used to signify internal thoughts too), and in news articles and magazines when quoting an interview.

“Hello, who is it?” asked Major Maulthweitz.

“It’s Honey Bee,” came the response on the other side of the door.

“Honey Bee, who?” said Major Maulthweitz with a questioning look.

“Honey, be a dear and bring me my coat,” said Major Maulthweitz’s wife.


This occurs when writers copy other writers word-for-word with no changes. Writers do this to provide support for an idea, provide proof of a thesis, to analyze a text, to refute another author, or merely to express an idea in more eloquent language than the author may be able to.

Kundera begins his novel not with setting or character or plot, but rather with philosophy. The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins here: ”The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!  What does this mad myth signify?”


II. For titles of small works

For the title of things that are published or released within a larger work, use quotation marks. This includes the titles of chapters in a book; of TV episodes; of articles in a newspaper, magazine, or journal; titles of songs; of short stories; and of poems. If you are unsure it you should use quotes, ask yourself a simple question, “Is this the title of something that is part a larger work?” If you answer, “yes,” use quotes; if you answer, “no,” italicize or underline the title.

newspaper article: “The High-Flavor, Low-Dogma Healthy Diet,” by Mark Bittman of The New York Times

song title: “Like a Rolling Stone,” by Bob Dylan

chapters: “Why are People,” The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

TV episodes: “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” M*A*S*H

short stories: “Master and Man,” by Leo Tolstoy

III. For times when referring to a word or phrase

Use quotes to indicate that you are talking about a word or phrase, not using the word for its meaning. In this way, the word or phrase is under discussion. Italicizing the word or phrase is another common way to let the reader know the same thing: “I am talking about this word. I’m not using this in my writing right now.”

The word “patronizing” has two meanings that don’t seem to be related: one about being a customer and the other about being kind to hind a feeling of superiority.


IV. To indicate irony

Use quotes around words when you don’t intend them to be taken seriously, that is, to indicate verbal irony. (Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but means the exact opposite.) This is actually the only time, too, when a punctuation mark has a life outside of written text–air quotes with your fingers indicate that the speaker is being ironic. The comic above is funny for this reason. (Is he really handsome?)

That is such a “beautiful” painting.

The recent “democratic” election in Venezuela had many irregularities.

The comic is also relevant to the next point.


V. To indicate a special usage of a word

At times, authors use words in ways that don’t adhere to normal usage. Maybe they using a word in a creative way, or using a phrase in an abnormal fashion. Use quotes for these times. After establishing this unconventional use of a word, though, the quotes are usually dropped in subsequent uses.

Stephen Fried coined the neologism, “fashionista,” in his book, Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of the Supermodel Gia.


VI. Use with nicknames

Use quotation marks around a nickname.

ex‐wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura

ex‐governor Jesse “the Brain” Ventura



VII. NOT with indirect quotations

Unless you are writing word‐for‐word what an author wrote or a person said, don’t use quotation marks. Paraphrases or a summaries do not need quotation marks.

ORIGINAL: All through the house, no animal stirred, not even a mouse.

INCORRECT: “All through the house, nothing moved, not even a mouse.”

CORRECT: “All through the house, no animal stirred, not even a mouse.”

But if you need to change a single word for clarity, this can be accomplished with brackets [ ]. This is sometimes necessary when fitting the quotation into the syntax of your sentence or when clarify who or what is being discussed

ORIGINAL: He knew that it was a good idea, but he didn’t know it would turn into a billion dollar idea.

QUOTE: “[Mark Zuckerberg] knew that [Facebook] was a good idea, but he didn’t know it would turn into a billion dollar idea.


VIII. NOT with a cliche

Cliches should be avoided, but if used, they definitely should not be surrounded by quotes. For one, a cliche is already a violation of style–aim to be unique–and by surrounding a cliche with quotes, the writer highlights this offense. Second, and even worse, the quotes indicate that the writer knew about the violation and went ahead with it anyway. The quotes seem to be asking the reader to forgive the writer for such an offense. But quotes are not meant as an entreaty for forgiveness.

INCORRECT: The problem is similar to “searching for a needle in a haystack.”


IX. NOT To add emphasis

Store signs and billboards incorrectly use quotation marks to add emphasis to the words, often with unintended comical repercussions. This is not correct and should not be imitated. There is also an entire blog dedicated to this fault.

INCORRECT: Sale “Fresh” Apples

INCORRECT: Don’t let “back” pain keep you from enjoying the summer.

INCORRECT: Produce for “you”



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